As protests over the killing of an unarmed black man by Minneapolis police spread across the U.S., Mark Mason, one of Wall Street’s most senior black executives, debated whether to weigh in.
People around him kept asking what he thought.
On a conference call last week to honor a group of junior executives inside Citigroup Inc., an employee asked Mason, the bank’s chief financial officer, whether it planned to enter the political fray as it had on issues including gun control and protests by white supremacists.
Mason’s wife and children encouraged him to speak up as well.
“It became obvious through the week that people needed to hear from the company,” Mason said in an interview Monday evening. “I wanted to speak out in a way that highlighted the atrocities of this incident, that explained what black Americans are feeling and that gave some way for people to help.”
The blog post he ended up publishing on Citigroup’s website late Friday began by repeating some of George Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” 10 times. It has since drawn hundreds of public comments from bank employees.
“The response has been overwhelming,” Mason said.
The death of Floyd in Minneapolis and other fatal police encounters now fueling protests nationwide have prompted executives from almost every major bank and investment firm to speak out.
And behind the scenes, it’s driving conversations in an industry that wants to be viewed as more socially responsible, even as it struggles to deliver on promises to improve diversity within its ranks.
Executives of color are using the moment and their platform to speak out.
“It’s 2020 and enough is enough. We can no longer be silent,” Thasunda Brown Duckett, chief executive officer of consumer banking at JPMorgan Chase & Co., said in a post on LinkedIn.
Like Mason, she’s a rare black American in the top tiers of the U.S. finance industry. “Yes it’s painful and my tears are real,” she said.
‘Pain Still Lingers’
For billionaire Robert Smith, founder of Vista Equity Partners, Floyd’s killing and other recent events — such as the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery in south Georgia while he was out for a run — forced him to recall learning his uncle was shot dead by a white gas-station attendant after having just received his master’s degree and taking on a new job with the state of Colorado.
“This was almost 50 years ago, and the pain still lingers,” Smith said in a memo to employees. “When I see the face of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery or Christian Cooper, I see myself as a young man; I see the faces of my children; and I am reminded of the many times in my life when I have been judged not by my character, but by my skin color.”
Cynthia Adams, a top lawyer at Jefferies Financial Group Inc., expressed her dismay in a letter to colleagues. Coworkers told her it helped open the door for conversations in the workplace about race and politics.
“I continue to feel the pain,” she said in a phone interview Monday. “My main reaction is ongoing grief.”
At many of the biggest U.S. banks, the percentage of black workers and executives has been slipping or stagnant. African-Americans accounted for 13% of JPMorgan’s U.S. employees last year, down from almost 19% before the 2008 financial crisis.